A New Trade Union Association - Why?

A New Trade Union Association - Why?

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On May 1, 1998, while Israel celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, the Workers Advice Center established a new trade union. WAC’s conference in Nazareth marked the first independent initiative by labor organizers to fight recession and support Arab workers in Israel. The peace process has proved to be a political and economic disaster not only for the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Diaspora, but also for those living in Israel itself. The process has opened cheap labor markets for Israeli entrepreneurs in Jordan and Egypt; these businessmen make up the advance guard in Israel's trend toward globalization. The result has been a major increase in local unemployment. Hardest hit are the Arabs. Although they amount to only a fifth of the country's population, half of the localities suffering from high unemployment are theirs. After the war of 1948, Israel confiscated virtually all the Arab land reserves, shunting future generations out of agriculture (the main branch of Arab employment till then), and robbing the towns and villages of their potential tax base. At the same time, the state refused to grant permits for industrial development or the establishment of infrastructure. Arab workers have had to commute each day, dispersing themselves among the Jewish cities. They are voiceless and invisible. Each rise in unemployment hits them hardest. Jewish unemployment, on the other hand, is at the center of national attention. Plans are afoot to train the Jewish unemployed so that they can make the transition to high-tech industries. The Arabs are excluded. They have never been allowed to work in any profession that might conceivably relate to "security."

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The Histadrut, Israel's national labor union, has no concern for the Arabs. Its current struggle is to preserve the living standards of its more powerful components. As for the national trend toward privatization and globalization: this it accepts as a fait accompli . The unorganized sectors, especially the Arabs, need an alternative with a sharp, independent understanding of the reality we are confronting. Our decision to launch the trade union association follows four intensive years, during which we have represented Arab workers in court and given them legal advice. For example, we helped the 200 female workers at Macpell Textiles in their successful fight for decent working conditions. We took the cases of eight of these women to court against the management, which had been paying them less than the minimum wage, and we won. We handled the cases of twenty female workers from the village of Bir al- Maksur and eight from Arabeh Al Batuf. We publicized the exclusion of Arab workers from hotels in Eilat. We also exposed the activities of a large construction firm, A. Dori, which had illegally replaced Arab with foreign workers. We have represented dozens of individuals and won most of their cases. We have met frequently with groups of workers and provided counseling. Through all this activity, the Workers Advice Center has gained the experience needed to register as an independent trade union association. In contrast with this grassroots initiative, the Arab political parties in the Histadrut have continued to make alliances with the various Zionist blocs, although none of the latter have ever bothered themselves about the Arab working class.

WAC is therefore stepping out in a new direction. We thus affirm our solidarity with the working class worldwide. We see ourselves as the heirs of the Congress of Arab Workers. This historic Palestinian trade union had its peak in the 1940’s under British rule. The Israeli Communist party dissolved it in 1954, when the Histadrut opened its gates to the Arabs. On May 1, WAC was transformed into an elected institution, which will function through the membership dues of the workers. We shall fight for the right to negotiate in labor disputes. We intend to break the Histadrut's monopoly, releasing the Arab workers from the chains which the national union has forced upon them. In practice, we expect, the new association will mainly represent Arabs. It will be open, however, to all workers in Israel, and it will strive to develop relations with all democratic labor organizations.

Wac's website: (In preparation for the conference, WAC has prepared a document which reviews in detail the history of the Arab working class in Israel. It describes the status of the Palestinian trade union movement after Oslo, and it analyzes, within a global context, the present trends in Israel's economy. The document is currently available in Arabic.)